A combination of thousands of tailpipes and factories, summer sunshine and stricter pollution standards is putting the Seattle area on the brink of violating federal smog standards, which could cause health concerns and result in more red tape for companies building factories here, more inspections for car owners and new formulas for the gasoline we...

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The Seattle area is on the verge of getting a brown smudge on its green reputation.

A combination of thousands of tailpipes and factories, summer sunshine and stricter pollution standards is putting the region on the brink of violating federal smog standards.

“We are, I would venture to say, one good heat wave away,” said Alice Collingwood, spokeswoman for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

That heat wave may be at hand; forecasters say Seattle could see a high of 87 today and top out in the 90s Friday and Saturday.

If the air standards are violated, it could mean more red tape for companies building factories, more inspections for car owners and new formulas for gasoline. It’s also a sign our air is dirty enough to raise health concerns.

The problem is ozone, a major component of smog created when car exhaust and industrial solvents react with heat and sunlight.

Ozone near the ground can irritate lungs, trigger asthma attacks and even contribute to premature death among people with heart and lung disease.

When high levels trigger a local smog alert, something that happened last week and could happen again this week, health officials warn asthmatics and others with sensitive lungs to beware. Even people without lung problems should be careful, said Aileen Gagney, of the American Lung Association of Washington:

“You want to be outside, it’s beautiful, but it’s really not the place to be, especially if you’re doing strenuous exercise.”

The Seattle area had been approaching the federal ozone limits for some time, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year lowered the acceptable level from 84 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion. Even that, however, was higher than the level recommended by the agency’s scientific advisers — no more than 70 parts per billion.

The new standards meant Seattle and nearby cities were suddenly at greater risk of being declared an air-pollution problem area. The worst air is in rural areas near the Cascade Mountains, such as Enumclaw and North Bend, where wind blows the region’s pollution.

Two more days this year with ozone levels over the limits would do it, said Dave Kircher, air resources manager for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which covers King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

That would set off a years-long bureaucratic process, in which the region could have to devise and implement a federally approved plan to reduce ozone to an acceptable level.

It would be a repeat of history. In the early 1990s, high ozone levels triggered a similar problem here. Initiatives to install vapor-catching equipment at gas pumps, reformulate gasoline to make it evaporate more slowly, and reduce the use of industrial solvents at places like Boeing factories all helped, said Kircher. New, cleaner-running cars required under federal law also contributed. By 1996, things had improved enough for the area to get off the EPA’s bad-air list.

It’s not clear what the region would have to do this time around, Kircher said.

But some parts of California that have wrestled with air pollution for decades have resorted to stricter standards for everything from gasoline to paint to car exhausts. Washington adopted California’s latest car-exhaust limits, which take effect for 2009 models.

Companies that want to build new factories or make big changes could face stricter reviews and requirements.

That’s “something that industry is not very fond of,” said Kircher. “Boeing in particular has been very vocal.”

Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said the situation wasn’t a significant “near-term” business issue. But in an e-mail he wrote, “We need to maintain the Puget Sound as an attractive, vibrant and competitive place for our employees to live and work.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com